The Immortality of Sherlock Holmes

By  · Published on January 3rd, 2017

A cautionary tale of two hats.

The greatest mystery ever presented by a Sherlock Holmes story is one the detective never solved ‐ indeed, it is the mystery of the detective himself, and his seeming immortality. His cultural presence has never wavered or waned, and has transferred from one medium to another with astonishing ease, thriving in novels and short stories, radio programs, stage plays, films, and television series. As the story goes, even his creator couldn’t kill him, despite his best efforts.

What makes Sherlock Holmes so special? He’s not the first fictional detective (Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin is generally considered to hold that honor), and while Conan Doyle’s stories were popular, there were always other books that were more so. Though the Sherlock Holmes fandom has been argued to be the first, it’s a highly debatable claim (more on that later).

I can’t pretend to have all the answers, but there are some interesting insights to be found by comparing the long-term success of Sherlock Holmes to the ultimate failure of the biggest literary phenomenon of the late Victorian era, Trilby.

There’s a long-running gag in Sherlock about the iconic deerstalker. “This isn’t a deerstalker now, it’s a Sherlock Holmes hat,” John Watson comments at one point. While the accuracy of his comment is neither here nor there ‐ “deerstalker” is still the dictionary accepted term ‐ the hat pictured here is definitely a trilby (which, no, is not the same as a fedora).

In fact, the hat is the first result Google will give you if you search the term “trilby,” instead of the novel adapted to the stage play in which the hat originated and from which it takes its name ‐ though the hat is now one of a scant handful of reminders that George Du Maurier’s novel ever even existed.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories were popular, yes, but speaking of them as the end-all be-all literary phenomenon of their time completely misrepresents the Zeitgeist of the period. To bring it into perspective, sure, we want the likes of Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire to be the literary legacy of our times, but could you truly encapsulate the culture of the past five years if you ignored Fifty Shades of Grey? For better or worse, I would say not, and the fact is that the Fifty Shades craze at its height never even came close to Trilby. To give some idea, at the height of the novel’s popularity, journalist William Cowper Brann described the state of US culture thusly:

“The Trilby craze has overrun the land like the ‘grip’ bacillus or the seven-year locust. Here in America it has become almost as disgusting as the plague of lice sent upon Egypt to eat the chilled steel veneering off the heart of Pharaoh the fickle. Everything is Trilby. We have Trilby bonnets and bonbons, poses and plays, dresses and drinks. Trilby sermons have been preached from prominent pulpits, and the periodicals, from penny-post to pretentious magazine, have Trilbyismus and have it bad.”

While Conan Doyle failed to kill Sherlock Homes, “Trilby-mania” is believed to have driven du Maurier into an early grave. And unlike the Sherlock Holmes craze, of which it is surprisingly hard to find evidence from contemporary sources, the tale of du Maurier’s downfall comes directly from those close to him ‐ specifically Henry James. James spent three pages of his 16-page-long obituary article for du Maurier in Harper’s Weekly all but directly stating that he blamed the Trilby craze for the rapid deterioration of his friend’s health:

“The whole phenomenon grew and grew till it became, at any rate for this particular victim, a fountain of gloom and a portent of woe… he found himself sunk in a landslide of obsessions, of inane, incongruous letters, of interviewers, intruders, [and] invaders…”

So why has Sherlock stuck around while Trilby disappeared?

To begin with, Trilby is, in the author’s own words, “weird.” It tells the story of Trilby O’Ferrall, a half-Irish model with “astonishingly beautiful feet” (the first description of her feet takes up almost two full pages) working in Paris in the 1850s, and her tumultuous relationship with a young English gentleman and artist called Little Billee. Believing herself unworthy of him, Trilby turns to the devious but talented musician Svengali, who ends up hypnotizing her so he can play her like an instrument (Trilby has an excellent voice, but is tone-deaf). For a modern audience, Trilby is also problematic in everything from its portrayal of women to its villain, who encompasses all the worst of the antisemitic stereotypes of that time. Furthermore, it’s more traditional Victorian ending—i.e. most of the characters die from illnesses linked to their emotional turmoil—does not naturally lend itself to fan-generated continuations. In comparison, the serial format of Sherlock Holmes stories lends itself extremely well to inspiring fan works, as does the slightly more open-ended nature of Conan Doyle’s conclusion (once he revived Holmes after “The Final Problem”).

Continuations like “Mr. Holmes” imagine the Consulting Detective’s golden years

However, to get to the heart of Sherlock Holmes’s seeming immortality and Trilby’s downfall, we need to look to adaptations. While Conan Doyle’s stories remain popular, it is the numerous adaptations that have re-invented and re-introduced Holmes and Watson and all the rest to generation after generation of new audiences, converting new fans and keeping old fans engaged. Trilby has received the adaptation treatment many a time, from films to highly successful stage productions, but utterly failed to stand the test of time.

Looking at their respective adaptations, there is a rather interesting and telling trend that requires looking no further than the titles: after 1923, none of the Trilby adaptations are called Trilby, but Svengali.

“Trilby” (1915)
“Svengali” (1931)

If the name “Svengali” sounds familiar, it’s because it’s still used on occasion as a term to describe, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “a person who manipulates or exerts excessive control over another” (the antisemitic implications of the original character have been largely forgotten), and can be found in everything from His Girl Friday to the television show Psych.

This shift in titles represented an equal shift in focus towards the antagonist in the adaptations—and this is what truly marked the end of Trilby. Trilby-mania was centered around the novel’s heroine, with women seeking to imitate her look, from hats to dresses to shoes. Stores sold Trilby dolls and games. People debated Trilby’s morality, whether she should be looked to as a good or bad influence. It was inevitable that the Trilby craze would die down—mania that extreme always does—but the rapid and complete nature of its disappearance was not a given.

One of the most fascinating elements of Trilby is the eerie degree to which it was a case of life imitating art—a novel about fame, phenomenon, and the destructive nature of obsession inspired an obsessive craze which destroyed the author. Within the novel, Trilby is released from Svengali’s spell when he dies suddenly. However, her health deteriorates and she too dies, having spent too much time under his influence to survive independently. In a sense, the same thing happened to Trilby’s legacy—it became too dependent on Svengali, and it died.

This is where Trilby becomes a cautionary tale.

Sherlock Holmes adaptations have consistently been, first and foremost, about Sherlock Holmes. No matter how much we like John Watson or DI Lestrade or Irene Adler, no matter if James Moriarty is the yin to his yang, the Joker to his Batman, Sherlock Holmes has remained the star. His name is usually in the title—whether it be Sherlock Holmes or Sherlock or Mr. Holmes—and his face is usually front and center on the posters.

While the consulting detective who resides at 221 B, Baker Street has ingrained himself too deeply into the cultural fabric to disappear the way of Trilby, the more recent seasons of Sherlock reveal a show in danger of falling into the same trap as Trilby, namely, becoming too dependent on a villain—specifically, a dead one.

Moriarty is a brilliant villain. Andrew Scott’s performance was nothing short of incredible, and the Season 2 Moriarty story arc was Sherlock at its best. It was, in fact, too good. Instead of limping along with villains that can’t quite match up, the show has simply refused to let Moriarty go, to the detriment of everyone else.

Yes. Too much.

There’s a moment at the end of “The Six Thatchers” when Sherlock pulls a disc from an envelope. “Miss Me?” is written across it in sharpie. Sherlock’s eyes light up, as do the viewer’s.

Ultimately, it’s a false alarm: an intentional choice made by the actual sender to ensure Sherlock’s attention. But it drives home an important point—Sherlock might not quite be Moriarty’s show, but it’s treading a very fine line.

Only time will tell whether it steps back from that edge or falls over it. If it does, it won’t do itself any favors. Moriarty was a great character, but it’s time to let him go.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.